Preventing Life Skill Deficits

As you may have gathered by now, my school has issues.  And if you are the type that requires hard data, here are some raw numbers to sharpen your teeth on:

– Four-year graduation rate: 44%

– Percentage of students eligible for free lunch: 82%

– Attendance: 75%    (Misleading because the many students who show up for 4th period but skip the rest of the day are counted as present.)

– School Crime: This is a meaningless statistic so I won’t even include it. If you walked past someone on the street and they called you a name and you instantly slapped them in the face, sparking an all-out bare-knuckle brawl, you are going to be charged with a crime. But if you do that in a school – say today during 6th period right next to me – you will take a comfy elevator ride to the deans office, bitch about how the other girl has been calling you a pussy and talking trash about your 6 month-old baby (yes this was her actual story), get told by a very tired individual that fighting isn’t the answer, serve a five day suspension, and then come right on back to school.  I guess handling things in-house keeps our “numbers” down. And as we know, it’s all about the numbers.

But perhaps more surprising than the fact that we have problems at our school is that this has actually been noticed by the powers that be. As a result, we have been placed on special list of ‘Schools That Suck’. This means we are in danger of being closed down, and we have to show that we are getting better. At least I think that’s what it means, because no one actually tells us anything, which may be part of the problem.

So, apparently, one of the things we are doing to get better is to hire a private company that helps schools “work”.  Again, I think we are doing this. All I really know is that there is this mustachioed dude in a suit, who I hear is from Kentucky, that stands around the halls, silently getting in the way.  I suspect he is also telling the principal to make us go to more professional development meetings, instead of letting us use our free time in ways that would actually help us do our job, like as a break from the insanity, or if we’re feeling really crazy, actually preparing for our classes.

I guess their reasoning for this is that a 44% graduation rate must be due to the deficient training of the teachers rather than circumstances and influences in the kids’ lives, families, and communities.  After all, kids spend an average of only 12 minutes a day interacting with their parents and whopping 7 hours a day interacting with their teachers.  Therefore, kids must be products of their schools, not their homes. Right?  And by extension, if we could train the teachers at schools like mine as well as we do the teachers at schools with a 99% graduation rate, then our students would suddenly be doing just as well as them, and we could finally close the dreaded “Achievement Gap” that plagues this country.

It’s obviously not that anywhere near that simple, but whether it’s due to political expediency, political correctness, or plain old ignorance, that is the approach our government and society have chosen. You know the campaign mantra, “Our Schools Are Failing Our Children” not “Poverty, Unemployment, A Culture of Violence, Teen Pregnancy and Illiteracy in the Home Are Failing Our Children”.  And while teachers and schools do indeed have many problems, and should be trying their utmost to improve every day, I can guarantee you that it’s not the schools that are teaching kids to be gang-members, disrespect and curse at adults, solve problems with violence, have a child at age 15 and hold reading and studying in disdain.  Therefore, my humble suggestion would be: instead of investing all that money into more “training” for teachers at struggling schools, invest it into tackling the issues mentioned above that stem from values and behaviors in the home and in the community. Where you used to have “schools” in name only, full of severely troubled young people earning worthless degrees because we are told by politicians to graduate them or lose our jobs, you will instead begin to see children with drastically reduced rates of cognitive and behavioral problems, ready, able and willing to learn. Then, and only then, can teachers even begin to do their part to close the achievement gap.

But in the mean-time, we will continue to be told that it is up to us, the teachers, to save at-risk kids and communities on our own, and we will be given charts and graphs and diagrams and scripts to help us do it. And we will ignore them, and we will count the days until summer vacation.

This past Election Day, while the students enjoyed a day off from terrorizing the staff, the staff itself was ushered to an undisclosed location, and subjected to enhanced training techniques, paid for by the silent guy in the suit from Kentucky.

A Professional Development day (or P.D.) is always worse, to me, than the worst day with the students. I am never more unsatisfied with my job than during these excruciating experiences. I’ve even been known to burn a precious sick day just to escape the torture. But this year, the contractors we hired – we’ll call them Blackwater – splurged on us and rented out a fancy-schmancy banquet hall called Bonanno’s by the Bay in the Italian neighborhood near our school.

Our procession of shabby vehicles was met by a valet service out front. Opera music playing from speakers disguised as amphoras gently washed over us at the entrance. Inside, gaudy chandeliers dripped from the ceiling of a huge hall, big enough to comfortably sit our staff of 200 plus.  The room was wrapped in mirrors that multiplied our dowdy lot into a dowdy infinity.  “Mafia mirrors,” whispered an Argentinian Spanish teacher who was sitting next to me. “Mafia money pay for these.”

After stuffing ourselves at the free omelet bar that we had heard so much about in the preceding days (it doesn’t take much to impress us), and wrestling over the last crumbs of pastry, we were finally corralled into our seats, abuzz with anticipation. The secret was about to be revealed to us – all wrapped up in a nice tight package of boxes and arrows, concisely demonstrating exactly why people do what they do. The philosophers and behavioral psychologists were going to be out of work once this thing hit the streets. Having trouble “shaping” a troubled youngster? Look no further. I present to you “The Shaping Process”:

Ready to save the world now? I thought so. Inspiring, isn’t it? My only question is, why didn’t they give me this years ago? The lives I could have saved…

But who knows, maybe I’m the exception and there are people out there who can actually use this as a guide to their work and still feel like a human being.  To me, it’s more like a poke in the eye, or a swift kick to the nuts. Every time I look at it I make a face like I’m holding a smelly bag of garbage at arm’s length. To start with, I don’t know what the fuck it means. And I’m good with graphs!*

“What is this, a graph?” I asked the people at my table, hoping to detect some disgust in them as well.

“No,” snapped an overly-confident, overly-fed woman from across the table.

I tried again, this time using a more up-to-date term. “A graphic organizer?”

“It’s a chart,” she blurted out between bites of eggplant parm.

Luckily, just in case frauds like me found this “chart” frustrating, the kind people at Blackwater also gave us dialogues that we can use as a fool-proof, step-by-step script for “shaping” the youth.

And here it is:

Skill: Accepting Criticism

Teacher: (Getting down to the student’s eye level) “(Name), nice job with the first seven problems, but I’m seeing a few errors after that. It looks like you have not remembered to adjust the decimal point after multiplying.”

Student: (Looks at the teacher) “Okay, (Name).”

Effective Praise Begins Here

Teacher: (Still at eye level) “(Name), before you get started on these corrections,

Show Approval

“I want you to know that you did an excellent job of accepting criticism.”

Describe Appropriate Behavior

“You looked at me, said ‘Okay,’ and you didn’t argue.”

Give a Reason

“When you can accept criticism that way, you’re more likely to fix your mistakes, which will help you get a better grade.”

They also provided us instructions for teaching people how to say, “Hello,” along with other essential life skills.

Here they are:

Greeting Others

1. Look at the person.

2. Use a pleasant voice.

3. Say “Hi” or “Hello.”

Having a Conversation

1. Look at the person.

2. Use a pleasant voice.

3. Listen to what the other person says.

4. When there’s a break in the conversation, ask a question or share your thoughts.

Following Instructions

1. Look at the person.

2. Say “Okay.”

3. Do what you’ve been asked right away.

4. Check back.

Appropriate Voice Tone

1. Listen to the level of the voices around you.

2. Change your voice tone to match.

3. Watch and listen for visual or verbal cues and adjust your voice as needed.

I couldn’t decide if my problem with these was that they belonged in a kindergarten class, or because they were clearly plagiarized from the manual, “How to Program a Cyborg”. Also, if this was really the key to shaping troubled young people, why is it presented to us in such a random arbitrary way? Why only this year? Why only our school? None of it makes sense.

I started talking to one of the other teachers at my table. “This is kindergarten stuff. Shouldn’t they be giving this to kindergarten teachers and training us how to teach high school stuff, like college-prep kind of stuff?”

“Who’s going to teach them the things they were never taught? Nobody?” the other teacher added sagely.

“Okay, fine,” I replied. “But why don’t we start training the kindergarten teachers now, so by the time that generation reaches us, we won’t have this problem?”

You should be a principal,” said another teacher at the table.

I don’t want to be a principal though. I was bored with this. More than bored. I was miserable. So I did what I always do when I am a bored, miserable captive. I drew. I drew my water glass. I drew the large teacher sitting in a little chair at the table next to me. I drew the back of the guy’s head sitting in front of me.

When I showed it to him, he said, “Can you draw the front too?”

“Okay, but you have to turn around.”

So he did, turning his back to the presenters in the process. Then he started fidgeting.

“(Name), you have to stay still,” I said.

“But Pistol, the guy from Kentucky is right behind you and he’s staring at me. At us. ”

“Whatever,” I said, and continued to draw. “Don’t worry, we’re augmenting school climate and culture through our extra-curricular, skill-building, collaboration behaviors.”

“He’s still staring,” he said nervously.

Just then, the man from Kentucky walked past us and up to the front of the room and grabbed the microphone from the speaker. He told the crowd that he was “going to bat” for us, and how he “believed” in us, and that the least we could do was to pay attention to the presenters. As he spoke, he waved a check that he had written to pay for the day’s events high over his head. Personally, I don’t think he used appropriate voice tone nor did he demonstrate effective praise, but I guess that’s not for me to decide.

Mercifully, said events finally drew to a close and the presenter asked our principal if she would like to say some closing words. She said okay, and waddled up to the front. But she was waddling really slowly, even slower than usual. If I was a betting man, I’d say she was stalling in order to come up with something to say because she wasn’t expecting to have to work during this gig. The word on the street was that her biggest concern regarding the entire event was whether or not they would let her take the left-overs home. I heard she had her minions negotiating the issue until the last minute.

“Guuuuys,” whined the Chief, “I want you tuh be happy in tha classroom. If yoah unhappy in ya life’s work, that’s not good. Becowaz the stress you have – the – the – ya know – the harda time ya have in tha classroom – and yoah in tha classroom a lowong tiiime!”

1. Look at the person.

2. Stay calm.

3. Say, “What you have just said is deceptively profound, and I thank you for it.”

The End
P.S.
* Having disparaged Blackwater’s graphs and diagrams, I feel I am obligated to present an example of one that I respect. Below is my all time favorite.

IMG_0041

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3 Responses to Preventing Life Skill Deficits

  1. Duece says:

    This might be the best one yet my friend. So freakin on point! You gotta get this shit seen by slate or the times or some shit. It’s amazing.

    I feel drained and sad just looking at those graphs….

  2. ian says:

    what beautiful transport your writing is to such an overwhelmingly hopeless place. Are these guilty giggles? Dunno, but keep them coming please, your blog is magnificent.

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